A month ago, as the Celtics led the Magic 3-0 in the Eastern Conference finals and looked to close the deal on another conference title, Paul Pierce admitted that as a Celtic, his legacy meant a lot to him.
"You think about it," the Celtics' captain said. "You think about the older players. You think about your legacy. You think about the great Celtics teams of the past. You think about a number of things. Like I've said, when you play on these great Celtics teams, they've done it more than once. When you want to be mentioned with the great players, I think after you win one, when you win two, it really solidifies your position in NBA history as a great player. I'm trying to be there."
Pierce went on to play in the NBA Finals this June, his second in the last three years. He had a chance to earn the title as an all-time Celtics great, proving that he belongs among the true legends by winning a second championship. But a handful of mediocre shooting nights in the Finals and a Game 7 collapse left him on the outside of history looking in.
Would a true Celtic legend blow a 3-2 series lead against the hated Lakers?
Does he disappear in the fourth quarter of Game 7, and fail to deliver in the 12 most important minutes of his career?
If you're someone who's watched and loved Pierce throughout his 12 years in Boston, these are all scary questions. Pierce arguably fits in on the all-time starting five C's dream team alongside, say, Bill Russell, Larry Bird, John Havlicek and Bob Cousy. But if he really belonged in that rarefied air, wouldn't he have proven it by getting the job done at the Staples Center on Thursday night?
Your heart says no — one loss isn't the end of the world, and Pierce is still a living legend in this town. Your brain says that this loss means a lot.
Russell won 11 rings. Havlicek piled up eight, Cousy six and Bird three. They all earned their respect in the Hub by winning title after title after title.
These Finals weren't just about Pierce — it was a referendum on the Celtics' Big Three. Who knows whether Kevin Garnett or Ray Allen will ever get this kind of opportunity again?
Danny Ainge slapped this group together in the summer of 2007 with the intent to win championships. And he didn't exactly give them a wide-open window — Pierce was already 29 at the time, and he was joined by Garnett at 31 and Ray Allen at 32.
Now Allen is weeks away from his 35th birthday and the other two aren't too far away themselves.
They're one-time NBA champions. On most teams, that would mean something, but on the Celtics, it means you've still got work to do.
How will the Celtics be remembered in 10 or 20 years? Were they legends in the mold of Russell or Bird? Or were they simply hired mercenaries who came together, won one title, and quickly faded away?
Right now, it looks like the latter.
One title isn't enough in this town. And the Celtics have a year, maybe two tops, before that window goes from slightly ajar to slammed shut. At the moment, the Big Three are a big one-hit wonder.